How do I know we live in the future? Because on Saturday I watched a couple of school kids enter a virtual world where they built a toy robot and were ready to manufacture it in a few hours.
At the Burbank Marriott last weekend, dozens of companies from the 3D modeling world showed off the latest production technology for the 3D Printer World Expo. It showcased the big and small players in 3D tech — from virtual sculpting programs to cameras that take 3D scans to the many machines that convert plastic into products.
For all the technology that descended on Burbank Saturday, I entered the expo just wanting to know how far off we are from owning 3D printers in our homes. When can I print out a replacement lid for the coffee pot I broke six months ago?
The allure of 3D printing right now is that engineers can realize prototype products in a few hours that are technically precise to within millimeters of their designs. Artists can realize Escher-like geometric patterns that would be literally impossible to construct by carving out of a block of material.
“It’s democratizing the process of engineering,” said Joe Micallef, design editor of 3D Printer World, an online resource for 3D printer users. “You don’t need to have the skills of an engineer to print something.”
There are two types of 3D printers. The more common method feeds a piece of plastic wire through a robotic arm that melts the plastic and places it on a platform, layer by layer, until your object is created.
Others use a viscous plastic goo (a technical term) that is hardened when shot with a laser similar to one on a DVD player. A robotic arm drags the formed object out as if emerging from a primordial pond.
The promise of at-home 3D printing is huge for regular consumers. Owners of classic cars could download designs for car parts that haven’t been mass-manufactured in 20, 50, or 100 years and produce them right in their garage. Apparel companies can print out shoes that fit the exact shape of your foot. The expo displayed several jewelers who make custom-fitted jewelry and customized pieces.
Want your name embedded on a wrench? Just hit “Print” and the whole tool forms in a few hours.
The expo highlighted medical advances through 3D printing. Artificial heart valves have already been developed on printers, as have prosthetic limbs. Using increasingly common 3D ultrasounds available today, you can print out a full-scale replica of your baby in utero.
“When you’re talking about it on that scale, that’s a whole other world,” said Braydon Moreno of Robo 3D.
He wore a blue plastic bow tie and leaned on his company’s product, a white printer that resembled a sewing machine. At the low-low price of $699, it was the most affordable device I encountered there — and was one of the sleekest-looking.
When the San Diego-based group launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter last year, Moreno and his four colleagues expected to sell 50 units. They received orders for 1,100.
With no interest to pay on a business loan and no investors who will own most of the company down the line, their business is about as homegrown as the products their machines create.
Across the aisle from Robo 3D was a group of MIT and Harvard grads. Their company, Formlabs, earned almost $3 million last fall on Kickstarter. Will Walker of Formlabs told me the slick, cube-shaped printer is sought out by “dentists, jewelers and serious hobbyists.”
3D printing has been around for 30 years using plastics, metals, food, and even wood grain. In the last few years, some patents expired that opened up the 3D printer industry to anyone — including Hollywood, where a video game designer might create a monster that can easily be exported to a scale toy model.
Character designer Neville Page, who has created creatures for movies such as “Prometheus” and “Tron: Legacy,” showed the expo crowd how the computer programs that layer virtual makeup on actors can use that same additive process to make scale reference models at a fraction of what they used to cost.
There is irony in the advancement of digital imaging. In the original “Tron,” Jeff Bridges’ character is scanned into a computer and transferred into the program. For its sequel nearly 30 years later, a similar scanning process was used to digitally make Bridges look younger.
“Everything … was done in reality using things that in the original ‘Tron’ were fantasy,” Page said.
My coffee pot, meanwhile, is still broken.